“I’ve learned that the path to reaching your goals is not a straight line,” says Wilson Acuna.
Growing up on a plateau in the Andes Mountains of Colombia, South America, he never dreamed he’d leave the small urban center of Bucaramanga for New York City—much less attend college there, graduate with honors and receive a full scholarship to Tufts University.
“My ultimate goal is to work in environmental conservation,” he says. “But I’m seeking opportunities, seeing what happens.”
Stepping Stone #1
In 2006, at age 17, Acuna took his first huge step—saying good-bye to his mother, sister and brother in Colombia, and moving to live with his father, a limousine driver, in the Bronx. He arrived in New York City with a high school diploma from his hometown, and even a year of college, but didn’t feel ready to tackle college classes in English.
“I had heard of BMCC through co-workers in a pet store in Manhattan, where I was a pet groomer,” he says. “I had also seen the ads on the subway, and that slogan, ‘Start Here, Go Anywhere’, caught my attention.”
Soon after, Acuna enrolled in the GED program at BMCC’s Center for Continuing Education and Workforce Development, then took part in CUNY’s College Transition Program, which prepares GED recipients for college-level work.
“We built a relationship,” he says. “Coming to BMCC, going through GED classes, and then the College Transition program, helped me regain the confidence I needed.”
Along the way, he found support in math teacher Kevin Winkler, reading and writing teacher Nicole Tavares, and others including CUNY Math Education Specialist, Steve Hinds.
"Steve has always been there for me,” Acuna says. “When I registered at BMCC, I was on the phone with him all day—he helped me select the classes I needed, and he was the one who recommended me for the tutoring job with CUNY Start [a program preparing students to pass the CUNY Entrance Exams]."
Acuna was also one of ten GED recipients, CUNY-wide, who won the Peter Jennings Scholarship Laurel Award—and he finally felt ready to tackle college classes.
Stepping Stone #2
In his first semester at BMCC, Acuna earned a 4.0 grade point average, and joined Phi Theta Kappa. By his second year, he was selected as one of BMCC’s two Kaplan Scholars, along with fellow student David Thelemaque.
“They don’t just give you financial assistance,” say Acuna. “They give you a support network, and leadership training where you learn things like how to present yourself in college admissions interviews. They also provide academic tutoring.”
While Kaplan Scholars receive generous support, “It’s also a lot of responsibility,” he says. “I pulled 12 college applications together in the fall semester, 2010. I had to keep performing well in class, while I wrote an average of three college essays a week.”
In fact, a group of six Kaplan scholars—from BMCC, Hostos and Kingsborough Community College—worked together on their applications, guided by a Kaplan advisor.
“When I wrote an essay, I would show it to the group and people would comment on it,” says Acuna. “The personal statement part is common to all the schools, but the supplemental essays vary from school to school.”
Stepping Stone #3
Acuna also found guidance in the faculty at BMCC. He graduated in June, 2011, earning an Associate degree in Science, with honors.
“I took biology, chemistry, physics, calculus, but my focus was biology,” he says. “The science faculty was very supportive. If I went to them with a question—not just about the course work, but about my professional, my personal growth in general—they would always be there to assist me, and do it gladly.”
Sarah Salm, Lalitha Jayant, Catarina Mata and Melissa Nashat are some of the science professors Acuna feels indebted to. His strongest bond, though, was with science professor David Krauss.
“He really knows his material, but also he wants the students to be an active participant in class,” Acuna says. “He’s always available through office hours and email. He would accept as many drafts of an assignment that we needed to do, and return them in a timely manner, with comments. He keeps an eye on students who need his help.”
That relationship led to another important step in Acuna’s academic path.
“Thanks to Professor Krauss,” he says, “I was accepted to do a research project in the biology department at Tufts University, last summer. I was an intern, working with biology faculty and PhD students on a butterfly research project.”
The project, he explains, centered on how an organism—butterflies, in particular—allocates resources that it consumes, to different parts of its body.
“We were controlling the levels of nitrogen the butterflies consumed in their larvae stage,” he says, “and seeing how nitrogen deficiencies affected the morphology of the adult butterfly.”
Stepping Stone #4
As a biology major at Tufts this fall, Acuna will receive a full scholarship through the Kaplan Educational Foundation, and Tufts University.
The summer he spent in Boston as an intern convinced him he would be comfortable there. “You get everything you get in a big city, without all the stress,” he says. “The lifestyle is more relaxed.”
He admits, though, that it won’t be easy to leave New York City. “I’ll miss my friends,” he says, “most of whom I met here at BMCC. When I started, I didn’t expect to form the kind of bonds I’ve formed.”
He’ll also miss his father, he says, who is starting English language classes, and considering going back to school, himself.
“He always thought I could come here, go to school, get a scholarship and be successful,” says Wilson, who is passing that attitude of support on to the next group of Kaplan Scholars at BMCC.
“They really look up to us,” he says. “They realize, people are actually doing it, here. Community college is not the last step in your education. You can really go further than you thought.”
Mostly what he offers the new class of Kaplan Scholars, is the example of his own journey.
“I will always think of BMCC,” he says, “and how all the programs I have participated in, were like stepping stones to get me to where I am now. BMCC gave me a place to start, when I didn’t know what I was capable of doing.”